Since there seems to be a lot of confusion regarding carbohydrates and their proper use while dieting, I will attempt to bring some light into the darkness.
Disclaimer: while carb restricted diets do work for people performing only aerobics, they do work A LOT better for people who train with weights.
This article has five components:
- What are carbs?
- How many do you need?
- The keto diet.
- The targeted keto diet.
- Carb cycling - how do do it properly.
1. What are carbs?
Carbs are the main source of fuel in the human body. The body breaks down carbs into monosaccharides (simple sugars) and converts them into glucose. Glucose is either being used for energy or stored in the muscles and liver. The human brain uses about 100 grams of glucose a day.
Once the glycogen stores in the muscles have been filled, fat storage begins. From all three macronutrients (fat, protein and carbohydrates) carbs are the only ones not needed for survival, because the body can derive glucose from free fatty acids (FFA) via ketosis. This is an important point to keep in mind, since ketosis is the basic concept for ketogenic diets a la Atkins etc.
That being said, carbs are not useless since they provide fuel for workouts and put your body in an anabolic (muscle building state) via the upregulation of IGF-1 and T3.
Insulin is a peptide (amino acid based) storage hormone, which is responsible for shuttling glucose into tissue such as muscle or fat cells. As you might have guessed, this is a double edged sword. Insulin, if applied properly, can provide your muscles with the energy you need to train or make you look like a beached whale.
Insulin efficiency basically measures your ability to handle carbs in your diet. The acid test is rather simple: if a large plate of pasta makes you sleepy, your insulin efficiency is poor. If your body fat is over 20% for males or 25% for females, you most likely do not have great insulin efficiency.
This can be improved via:
- Drugs (not advisable)
- Cutting carbs out for a while (much smarter)
- Losing body fat (great idea)
- Building muscle (insanely great idea). The more muscle mass you have, the more glycogen you can store. (And no, women simply can't build a lot of muscle, so you do not have to be afraid to look like the hulk)
Cliff notes (for the Facebook generation)
- Carbs are the only non-essential macro nutrient, so they can and should be manipulated for fat loss and performance.
- The higher your body fat percentage, the fewer carbs you should eat.
- The more muscle mass you have, the more carbs you can eat.
- Cycle them around when you need them, i. e. your workout.
- Insulin efficiency tends to drop with age (sad).
- Insulin efficiency can be improved by losing body fat, cutting out carbs for a while and building muscle.
2. How many carbs do I need and when?
Now that we have a basic understanding of carbohydrates, lets have a look at two issues a lot of athletes struggle with.
- Insulin sensitivity.
- Glycogen replenishment post workout or do I need to slam back 100 grams of waxy maize post workout?
As we learned last week, insulin sensitivity measures the body's ability to handle insulin and therefore carbohydrates. Someone with poor insulin sensitivity will tend to gain more body fat when eating carbohydrates than someone whose insulin sensitivity is better.
Why should you bother?
Because insulin is a double edged sword. Used properly, it builds muscle and helps you lose body fat. Used improperly...let"s just say that's how the Pillsbury dough boy got his job. Constantly eating cookies messed up his insulin sensitivity to the point where most of the calories he ingests are stored as fat.
What affects insulin sensitivity?
- Amount of muscle mass you carry. More muscle mass means more places to store glycogen.
- Amount of body fat. The higher your body fat percentage is the easier it is for insulin to store more body fat.
- Insulin sensitivity tends to drop with age.
So what is do be done?
First and foremost, you should access your body fat percentage. If you are over 20% as a male or 25% a female, cut out all carbs 2-3 weeks, then re-introduce them gradually.
If you are over 15% (or 20-25% for girls) I would still go without carbs for a week. Leaner athletes should keep carbohydrates to 2-3 meals a day and have another 2 meals just consisting of protein and fats.
Certain supplements can help with insulin sensitivity: fish oil, cinnamon and chromium come to mind. However, nothing is strong enough to counteract you loading up at the pancake house, so your diet has to be spot on.
OK, on to point 2. For years we have been told that we ABSOLUTELY NEED to drink a high carb shake post workout in order to "refuel and replenish". Is that true? Depends. If your goal physique is that of a sumo wrestler, have 50 -100 grams of sugar post workout.
The above holds true if you are a performance athlete and have another workout coming up within the same day. In that case you want your glycogen stores refilled ASAP. What about us physique athletes or people who simply want to look fabulous?
This is where things get tricky.
The goal of post workout nutrition is to stop catabolism aka muscle loss. This is determined by nitrogen retention which is determined by mTOR. The amino acid leucine is the key to flipping the switch from muscle wasting to muscle building post workout, think 5 grams of BCAAs or 20 grams of whey.
Then within one hour, have a regular meal with protein and carbs as well as little fat. This way you can train hard and stay lean.
How can one implement carbs into your daily eating? Basically, there are three ways to go about this:
- Never eat carbs, aka go Atkins or standard ketogenic diet.
- Eat carbs around the workout only, which would be a targeted ketogenic diet (TKD).
- Cycle your carbs during the week or the cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD).
3. The Atkins diet aka no carbs ever.
This diet form gained immense popularity with the premise that you can eat anything you want as long as it is carb free. This more or less rules out all starches, milk, dairy, fruit and non-leafy vegetables since you are only allowed 30 grams of carbs per day.
The laws of the universe still do apply. In order to lose weight you must go into a calorie deficit but it is just much harder to eat chicken breast as opposed to gummy bears so most dieters have an easier time achieving a caloric deficit while on Atkins.
The other reason it works so well is that carbs bind water. Each gram of carbs holds about 4 grams of water, we do store about 2 lbs of glycogen in our muscles and liver which in return bind about 8 lbs of water.
This explains the classic " I ate only bacon and eggs and lost 10 lbs " success stories of Atkins dieters. Basically, you lost 10 lbs of water which will then return as soon as the carbs are re-introduced.
However, the Atkins diet has its benefits. For once, people almost automatically reduce their calories when not eating carbs, since protein works as a hunger retardant.
After 72 hours of not eating any carbs, the body will switch into ketosis and use fats to produce glucose. This is when the cravings and headaches will stop.
Secondly, people enjoy the simplicity of not having to worry about one macro nutrient and lastly, it is easy to follow the diet plan even when eating out.
So what are the downsides of Atkins?
Due to the low intake of veggies and starches, you might become deficient in regards to certain vitamins and fiber so that supplements are needed.
But more importantly, it inhibits performance when training with weights. Resistance training requires glucose, once blood glucose levels drop below 25 mmol/kg, exhaustion kicks in. To reverse that process glycogen synthesis is needed aka you have to eat some carbs.
Athletes, who seek to maintain a high performance level for their workouts should not go without carbohydrates for more than 4 days in my personal opinion. Therefore, we will now look at ways to use carbs in a smart manner in order to lose body fat and maintain performance.
4. The targeted keto diet.
A smart way to use carbs in a diet which is around the workout as in before and after. The question is: when and how much?
A good rule of thumb is about 5 grams of carbs for every two sets of lifting. If we were to assume a typical workout of about 20 work sets, you are looking at 50 grams of carbs or about one cup of oats. This should be eaten about 90 minutes before training.
If your carb count surpasses 80 grams, I would recommend to split it before and after the workout.
Won't that kick me out of ketosis? Most likely yes, but only of the duration of the workout.
5. Carb cycling.
My favorite way of using carbs is to cycle them. This basically means that you divide the week into low and high carb days. Doing this has several advantages:
- It will keep you sane. It is simply much easier to follow a very strict diet for 4-5 days then 16 weeks.
- It gives you the best of both worlds: fat loss and strength gains.
- The refeed will enable you to keep or rebuild muscle lost during the diet.
- You get to tell your friends that Capt'n Crunch is part of your diet.
Before we get started, here are some general premises I feel apply to the carb cycling approach.
- It is not for beginners. If you haven't trained for at least a year, it is not for you.
- Carb cycling works best for people who are already rather lean. (Males under 10 % or females below 16% bodyfat.) If you are not at that level, a traditional diet will serve you just fine.
- Your appearance and body weight will both fluctuate greatly during the week. This can throw some athletes off, especially around Thursday when they look and feel their worst.
But why bother with a refeed at all? Can't I just stick to my regular diet?
You can, but unfortunately, your body hates you. Actually it loves you so much that it wants to keep you alive and prevent death by starvation. So it makes some adjustments, which were great for the hunters and gatherers but bad for a physique athlete.
What are those adjustments?
After a couple days of dieting, the metabolism slows down, hunger increases, and more and more muscle mass is sacrificed by the body for energy. Sadly, the human body is very efficient at adapting to new conditions. In short, thyroid hormone T3 levels drop by 30%; conversion from T4 to T3 in the liver is being slowed down, the half-life of cortisol increases and the production of Insulin like growth factor (IGF-1) is down.
Your muscles are so low on glycogen that they become resistant to growth despite training. In fact you are probably losing muscle. At this point, we need to talk about leptin for a second since it is also an important player in the diet scenario. Normally, it is a messenger hormone that inhibits your appetite to prevent you from overeating and gaining weight.
Now when you are dieting, the opposite holds true. With the reduced calories, leptin levels drop and appetite goes up. This means that a person who lowers his body fat is at an immediate disadvantage: his metabolism is automatically slowed down by as much as 30% within days, while suffering from hunger pangs.
So during a diet, all of a dieters nightmares come together: higher protein turnover combined with a lower levels of T3, IGF-1 (insulin like growth factor, one of the strongest muscle building hormones), leptin, and testosterone.
Why is that a nightmare? Because not only will you not lose any more fat, you will actually look worse than before. The loss of muscle will create a skinny fat version of yourself, the type you can see on most treadmills in the country.
- All this happens despite training and after only several days, not months, of dieting. Very soon you’ll reach a plateau; no fat is lost and instead lean body mass is sacrificed.
What? All this work and I look worse while feeling awful?
Yes, this is one reason why most diets fail. But the madness can be stopped. We just need to find a way to manipulate the body’s hormones for a short time. This can be achieved with a carbodydrate refeed.
Increasing the calories for a short period of time reverses the process described above. Testosterone, IGF-1, and leptin levels are brought up; the production of cortisol is slowed down; muscle loss is stopped, even reversed. As a result, the rate of metabolism increases, which then sets the stage for further fat loss.
In short, the universe similes upon you again.
How many carbs should I eat?
About 5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight, keep the protein at about 1 grams per lbs and fats as low as possible.
Please note: The term "low fat" rules out junk food such as donuts, pizza etc.
Why should I eat carbohydrates? Won’t I get fat by eating so much?
You will not. Adding carbohydrates to a diet at this particular point, as opposed to protein or fats, has several advantages. Leptin, insulin and blood sugar levels are being up-regulated, but due to the temporary lack of enzymes, the body is unable to store body fat.
The body’s first order of business is to refill glycogen storage, which takes about 24 hours. After that fat storage starts. Imagine owing $10,000 to some shady characters in Brooklyn. Now, by some good fortune somebody gives you $10,000. What will you do? Open a savings account or pay the mob back?
The Mob is your muscle and liver glycogen, the savings account your fat cells. Despite eating more carbs, you will still burn more fat. Too bad this awesome eating window is only open 24-36 hours.
A cheat day or refeed can be made more effective if the dieter does a heavy workout after his carbohydrate day. This ensures the glycogen gets taken into the muscle. The refeed day would be an ideal time to work on a weaker muscle group and use the insulin response for new growth.
So, let me sum up how I would structure a diet and training program for an already lean athlete.
- Monday: Very low carbohydrates (50 grams or less) high fat/medium protein, train lower body.
- Tuesday: Same diet, train upper body.
- Wednesday: Same diet, 20-30 minutes of medium intensity cardio if needed, no weights.
- Thursday: Whole body workout with low volume, start consuming carbs right after the workout.
- Friday: No training, refeed. The rule of thumb would be 10 grams of carbohydrates for every kilogram of lean body mass (or 5 grams of carbs for every pound of lean body mass) within a 24-hour period. Hmmm...pasta.
- Saturday: Eat a regular zone diet, no calorie deficit. Train the whole body or weak aka lagging body parts. You should be able to train heavy, since your energy levels are up. You should also look awesome. If you do not, you either did not enough carbs or aren't lean enough yet.
- Sunday: Back to Monday’s diet, cardio if needed.
Personally, I feel that a 10 day cycle would be better but the above outline makes it easier for most athletes to live their life and attend social events on the weekend.
That concludes my thoughts on carbs, I hope you ll find it helpful.